As is often the case, it’s the toddlers who strike gold. An immersive show for the under-fives, Tale Trail to the Wind in the Willows is a kind of primer for the New Vic’s main stage production, distilling the Kenneth Grahame favourite into a two-hander that focuses on the newly awoken Mole and the nice but reckless Toad. Something in the concision of the script, the bubbly performances and the playful direction gives this 45-minute version an uplifting air of adventure, jeopardy and discovery.
Staged by Katherine Hughes in a repurposed workshop, Jill Rezzano’s script sticks to the outline of Theresa Heskins’s adaptation in the main theatre as we are led through a series of rooms designed by Laura Clarkson. We fold blankets in Mole’s bedroom, rattle flowers near a moored boat, polish the silverware in Toad Hall and hatch a plot for a prison breakout. The generosity of actors Alexandra Daszewski and Michael Hugo – both excellent – makes the children think they’re driving the action (the nursery class I saw it with was wide-eyed) and that everything rides on their moral choices: is the speed-loving Toad as innocent as he claims and should we forgive the usurping woodland creatures in time for Christmas? The show’s transitions through the seasons are magical and, as we return Mole to her hibernation, its sense of completion deeply rewarding.
None of which is to knock Peter Leslie Wild’s vigorous in-the-round production next door, although it does expose an unevenness in the storytelling. There is good logic in Heskins using Mole as our way into these tales of the riverbank, especially when she’s played with the openness of Alicia McKenzie, an innocent at large in a precarious world. She seems to find security in her sense of smell and sniff her way into scenes of danger. Who wouldn’t want to befriend such a vulnerable creature? Weighed against that, however, is the inconvenient truth of Toad being more dramatically interesting. Played by Rob Witcomb as an amiable thrill-seeker, thoughtless but not malicious, he arrives on stage relatively late only to dominate the story. Poor Mole, who has no influence over his bad driving, imprisonment and escape, is squeezed out of the action. It leaves us slightly unanchored.
The overriding impression, however, is of a show in perpetual motion. As economical in its theatrical means as it is inventive, it finds deft ways of expressing complex pieces of business, be it Mole digging her way to the surface or Toad fleeing the police on top of a train. In Laura Willstead’s dynamic design, cloth tubes slink down to create a forest and when the otters appear through trapdoors, the stage seems to fill with fish – projections courtesy of lighting designer Daniella Beattie, who also creates a gasp-inducing stained-glass window.
Even when the story gets too wordy for a younger audience, there’s always lots to look at and listen to. For one of the great highlights of the show is Matt Baker’s score, gorgeously sung and played by an impassioned ensemble. Varying from ravishing a cappella harmonies to New Orleans jazz, the music takes on early 20th-century forms such as barbershop and tango, even carrying a suggestion of the Russian revolution when the woodland creatures seize Toad Hall with strident cymbal crashes and urgent accordion beats. In a show that is whimsical but not twee, it adds to the rich communal spirit.
• Tale Trail to the Wind in the Willows is at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until 29 December; The Wind in the Willows is on until 26 January.